BY: KABRENA ROBINSON
Zanana Akande epitomizes in all aspects the qualities of a powerful and resilient woman. Having devoted a lifetime to public service and advocacy, Zanana has been an active catalyst and pioneer in paving the way for marginalized communities and women in Canada while serving as a remarkable inspiration to all. She has contributed to society as a strong advocate for social justice and equity, a policy shaper, and an educator.
Zanana was born in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Her parents were both hardworking and well-educated immigrants from the Caribbean, her father from Barbados and her mother from St Lucia, who had worked as educators in their homeland but were denied the opportunity in Canada due to racist attitudes towards black people that prohibited them from holding teaching positions.
This did not deter them from motivating Zanana to strive for a good education and also to aspire to work in a professional field. She was successful in obtaining a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters of Education from the University of Toronto and worked as a teacher and elementary school principal for the Toronto District School Board. She went on to become an accomplished principal, designing programs for students with differential needs.
“When I got into education I loved it,” she expressed in an interview. “I enjoyed teaching kids and I really got a kick out of teaching anybody something that they previously did not understand or did not know and seeing that eureka moment and having them move on and apply that information. Whether it’s adults or children, I just get a good feeling out of that.”
After working as a principal for over four years, Zanana made the decision to run for a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) position for the National Democratic Party (NDP) in the downtown Toronto riding of St. Andrew-St. Patrick where she resided.
The outcome was groundbreaking. She was successful and made political history by becoming and the first black woman to be elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in 1990. This was only the dawn of her political prowess. In her appointment as Minister of Community and Social Services, she made history again in becoming the first black woman to hold a cabinet position in Canada. Her time in office was instrumental in shaping public policies fundamental to the lives of marginalized people.
Zanana said that at the time she did not expect to win but she saw it as an opportunity to speak to the three main issues that she was most invested in that were a part of the NDP’s platform which were long-term care for elderly people, integrated child services, and employment equity, which she was very passionate about.
“I would have preferred that the implementation of employment equity was not necessary but it was,” she said. “Nowhere was it more necessary than in government where blacks may be employed and often respected for the fact that they trained everyone else who moved beyond them and were promoted and there was considerable angst about that.”
“It disappointed me that this was the reality. It would have been my expectation and my hope that blacks would be promoted relative to their knowledge and their ability but it was obviously not so.”
Her impact as a cabinet minister, the parliamentary assistant to the premiere, and a resilient woman of action contributed to the passing of Ontario’s first mandatory Employment Equity Legislation, that would institutionalize rights and break down barriers for all women and minorities in the workplace.
As a minister, Zanana also spearheaded a social welfare reform that led to increases in social assistance rates for low-income Ontarians and benefits supporting women in shelters. She also devoted her efforts to the cause of food security when she announced $1 million in funding for food banks.
While breaking down barriers and taking on the vigorous world of politics, Zanana expressed that there were many challenges.
“While in office, the press was particularly aggressive toward me,” she said. “I was attacked by the fact that I was an NDP and my kids were in private school, for what I wore, about where I lived and how I lived. They said I didn’t represent the black community, that I was middle-class. I wanted to ask the media, ‘Who do you expect the first black woman in Ontario government to be?’ Whatever it was, I dealt with the fact that I didn’t fit their expectations, which made me realize how low and strange those expectations were.”
After leaving politics, Zanana’s unwavering advocacy within her community continued. She served as president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and Canadian Alliance of Black Educators and the Toronto Child Abuse Centre. She worked with several other community-based associations including the United Way of Greater Toronto, the Family Services Association, the Elizabeth Fry Society, and Doctors Hospital. In 2004, she was the recipient of the African Canadian Achievement Award for Education and the Award of Distinction from the Congress of Black Women.
Zanana was also the co-founded of Tiger Lily, the first magazine/journal in Ontario grounded in the voices and experiences of women of color. The magazine opened opportunities to and empowered the racialized, immigrants, and refugee women to have a literary space to share experiences and talents.
Now retired after devoting many years to public service, Zanana continues to be actively engaged in her community, lending her wisdom and her energies to various social justice initiatives.
This year, Zanana is a recipient of a YWCA Toronto 2018 Women of Distinction award among other powerful and brilliant women. She expressed that she is elated to be receiving such an award for her lifetime of work.
“This for me means a lot,” she said. “It means that women for whom I’ve worked, with whom I’ve worked and an association of women have recognized my work and for that I am very grateful.”